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Proposal for promoting sustainability in academia through the reduction of travel


A statement by Die Junge Akademie, drafted under the leadership of Anna Cord, Valerie Domcke, Astrid Eichhorn, Jonas Peters, Michael Saliba, Fabian Schmidt
Research Group Sustainability, Berlin 28.10.20

A significant part of the carbon budget of scientific and scholarly work is used up by CO2 emitted due to travel. To give an example, a single return flight from Frankfurt to New York leads to 2.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions. By way of comparison, the IPCC estimates the total amount of CO2 that may still be emitted before irreversible consequences occur to be only about 500 gigatonnes. This corresponds to about 1.8 tonnes of CO2 per person and year between now and 2050. This simple calculation shows that we researchers need to seriously rethink our travel habits.

Online conferences and workshops offer a clear alternative to travel, but are often met with reservations. For example, within Die Junge Akademie, the scepticism regarding online participation in our three-day general assembly was initially considerable. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the spring general assembly session 2020 had to be held completely virtually. This “experiment” went surprisingly well, hence our conclusion: Sometimes you just have to try!

In this paper, we list concrete proposals aimed at individual scientists and researchers, funding bodies, conference organisers, universities and research institutions. Where possible, we supplement these with personal experience and explain where we see difficulties as well as room for improvement. Concrete practical advice, including recommendations for technical implementation, is listed in a separate appendix that will be updated continuously. In a short outlook, we highlight that changing our travel culture also represents a major opportunity to achieve greater diversity.

Before we introduce concrete proposals, let us emphasise one key point: There is not much time to take the measures needed to curb or reverse the changes our climate is undergoing. Rather than despairing in the face of the magnitude of this challenge, it is important to realise that even a small change in behaviour is significantly better than no change at all – perfectionism can be counterproductive to valuable attempts.

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